It has often been said that devolution is a "process not an event", and this has rarely been as evident as in recent months. A Scottish independence referendum is now expected in 2014. Meanwhile, the powers of the three devolved administrations, as well as the system by which devolution is funded, are being reconsidered. What will the next phase of territorial politics look like? How should devolution be financed? And how will the civil service and government departments across the UK have to adapt to further constitutional changes?
12 years after separate parliaments and governments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were created, many of the basic features of devolution remain the subject of debate. Last year's SNP victory put the prospect of Scottish independence on the agenda. And all parties now agree on the principle of holding a referendum to settle the issue before 2015. In the meantime, the Coalition's Scotland Bill is proceeding through Parliament, and – if enacted – will transfer a number of new additional powers to Edinburgh (including over taxation).
Last year also marked the start of a new phase in Welsh devolution, as the Welsh Assembly took on an enhanced set of primary legislative powers. And debate continues on whether there is a need for alternatives modes of financing all three devolved administrations.
A further question is whether the mechanisms by which the UK and devolved administrations communicate, cooperate and resolve disputes are fit for purpose. The fact that there are different parties in power in each of the four capital cities raises particular challenges.
The Coalition has also published details of its plans to address the ‘West Lothian Question' by setting up a commission to explore its consequences for the House of Commons. It also intends to create powerful elected mayors for the large English cities, marking a new approach to devolution within England itself.
In this dynamic context, the Institute for Government is undertaking a number of activities relating to devolution.
Inside Devolution 2011: Devolution conference
The Institute for Government, in partnership with the UCL Constitution Unit, organised a major conference on devolution on 23 September 2011.
At this event, senior officials from the UK and devolved administrations, as well as academics and other experts discussed key issues relating to the changing context of devolution, lessons from the first decade, the difficulties of making and coordinating policy across a devolved UK, and the management of relations between the administrations.
Publication of 'Northern Exposure' by Sir John Elvidge
On 23 September 2011, the Institute was also pleased to publish and launch 'Northern Exposure: Lessons from the first twelve years of devolved government in Scotland' by former Scottish Government Permanent Secretary Sir John Elvidge.
In this paper, published as part of the Institute's InsideOut series of publications, Sir John argues that the UK government should make more use of knowledge and skills gained from the experience of 12 years of Scottish devolution. He draws three particular sets of lessons from his time at the heart of the Scottish Government:
- Scottish devolution has successfully dealt with unusual government configurations, such as coalition and minority government, and can offer lessons to other parts of the UK and other countries about how to adapt to new challenges.
- The civil service's understanding of the processes of government greatly contributed to the success of the Scottish government in meeting these novel challenges. As well as providing continuity and expertise, the Scottish civil service was able to develop new approaches which could potentially benefit the rest of the UK.
- One of the most radical innovations was the reconfiguration of the structure of government, where traditional departmental silos were abolished in an attempt to "to have government function as a single organisation, working towards a single defined government purpose based on outcomes, and establishing a partnership based with the rest of the public sector".
Policy Success Case Study: Scottish Devolution
As part of our work strand on better policy making, the Institute has undertaken research on a selection of policy successes. One of the selected case studies was Scottish devolution, which was voted the second most successful policy of the past thirty years in a survey of academics conducted with the Political Studies association.
The Institute held a policy reunion event in March 2011, at which officials and politicians involved in the implementation of devolution to Scotland discussed the key reasons for the success of this policy. Research and findings on the lessons to be drawn from the implementation of Scottish devolution will be published in autumn 2011 as part of the Institute's final report on policy successes.
Future work programme
Following our conference on devolution in September 2011, the Institute is keen to remain at the heart of the debate on the future of devolution, and to facilitate ongoing discussions between the UK and devolved governments, and other experts, on the key issues under consideration.
Over the next year, our research will study the impact that potential changes to the devolution settlement(s), or even independence for Scotland, would have on the UK-wide delivery of public services, including taxation and welfare, and also on intergovernmental machinery and the way the territorial constitution is managed in Whitehall. Further details on the project will be published here over the coming months.
In the first phase of this project, which is already under way, we are mapping out how Whitehall deals with devolution, on a department by department basis, and how Whitehall, and the Scottish and Welsh administrations relate to one another at present.